The toughest task in sports is not deciphering a block from a charge, or defining pass interference, but figuring out when to call the time of death for a pro golfer. Even Tour pros play the sport in retirement, erasing the line of demarcation between “active” and “ceremonial.” Also, retired guys have accidentally won; Johnny Miller was 46 when he captured the 1994 AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in just his fifth tournament start since 1990.
Still, there are certain tells that cannot be ignored, which is why it was all but impossible not to write Tiger Woods’s career obit after his press conference at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas on Tuesday.
â€œI think pretty much everything beyond this will be gravy,â€ Woods said, sounding very much like an athlete ready to put a bow around his 79 PGA Tour wins, including 14 majors, and call it good. â€œIf thatâ€™s all it entails,â€ he added, â€œthen Iâ€™ve had a pretty good run.â€
He later backpedaled in an interview on Sirius XM radio: â€œIâ€™ve been written off by a lot of people over a number of different years, and, you know, Iâ€™ll tell you when Iâ€™m done. â€¦ Iâ€™ll be the first to tell you that, you know what, I canâ€™t prepare, I canâ€™t do this, thereâ€™s no reason for me to continue on. And then Iâ€™m done; Iâ€™ll just transition to something else.â€
True, Woods has been written off by a lot of people, but he never, ever used to sound like he was writing off himself, as he did at times during his press conference Tuesday. He revealed that he hasnâ€™t hit a shot in two months, his forced absence from the game the result of his two well-chronicled back surgeries in the fallâ€”the second and third times heâ€™s needed to be cut on in a span of roughly 18 months. (If you had Park City, Utah, neurosurgeon Dr. Charles Rich on your fantasy team, then take a bow.)
Woods added he has not yet begun rehabilitation, at least not beyond his regimen of taking walks (many) and playing video games (copious).
â€œI donâ€™t have an answer as to when Iâ€™ll be back,â€ he said of his return date. â€œI have nothing to look forward to. There is no timetable.â€
He has nothing to look forward to? Yikes.
Well, there is one thing. Woods will be a vice-captain under Davis Love III at the 2016 Ryder Cup at Hazeltine.
When Woodsâ€™s role was announced two weeks ago it was assumed he might, in theory, at least, make the team. But on Tuesday he said he doesnâ€™t know if heâ€™ll even be able to swing a club by next fall. He said whenever he comes back to the game heâ€™ll stick with swing coach Chris Como, and revealed that all three back surgeries have targeted the same area. (Although Woods said he was slowed by hip pain in 2015.)
Big picture, things are bleak.
Woods has had one top-10 finish this year, at the mostly star-free Wyndham Championship in August. He hasnâ€™t won a Tour event in over two years. His last major victory was, altogether now, the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. And now he canâ€™t play well, poorly or at all, which has to be especially galling as he watches 20-somethings like Jason Day, Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth dominate the way he did not long ago.
Golfers are supposed to last forever, or almost that long. Fred Funk won on Tour into his 50s, and Davis Love III won in Greensboro this year at 51. Is it really time to write the epitaph on Woodsâ€™s career? His 15-shot victory at the 2000 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach was perhaps the best golf any of us will see in our lifetimes. He went in for major knee surgery after winning the â€™08 U.S. Open at Torrey, maybe the grittiest performance weâ€™ll see in our lifetimes, but still, he was only 32. There was plenty of time to win five more majors to beat Jack Nicklausâ€™s record, or four more, or at least two or three more if he really slowed down.
How about no more?
Woods wonâ€™t turn 40 until Dec. 30. Alas, his tortured back, his knee, his whole body seems to have aged double-time. He was always precocious.
Perhaps, like Miller, Woods will drop off the Tour only to win a tournament or two in retirement. But it seems like a pipe dream that he will lift any more trophies of real significance, the way a resurgent Nicklaus did when he won the 1986 Masters at age 46â€”major number 18.
So this is how it ends, with video games and long walks. With press conferences at tournaments heâ€™s not well enough to play. Whatever you might think of Tiger Woods, surely he deserves better.